All of a sudden, Tlalo tensed up. He seized me by the shoulders and forced me down behind one of the boulders with him. Before I could object, he clasped one hand over my mouth. I did not understand why until I peered around the edge of the boulder, as he did.
A second saucer was coming in for a landing next to ours. Familiar golden haired demigods emerged from it, surveying the cavern for any sign of us. They flew, but wore no winged flight packs as Tlalo and his troops did.
Instead they just levitated, rigidly upright and perfectly still as they floated along, as if standing on invisible moving platforms. Each one held a staff like mine, and I worked out that they must have such perfect mental self-control that they do not think twice about using their staffs to transport themselves.
After the adamant warnings from Drena never to do that, watching those men casually willing the staffs to move them about inspired some faint blend of awe and terror. The same staffs which, with an errant thought, could disassociate every atom in their bodies.
That degree of mastery over the Vril staff did not seem possible to challenge. Not for a human, much less one with so little training. Instead, recalling that the staffs require knowledge of the target’s location to work, I used mine to activate one of the atmospheric processors.
The Nordics nearby recoiled, plainly startled by the machine’s seemingly unprovoked sputtering. It belched out a rapidly growing mass of fog. By the time they used their own staffs to shut it down, visibility in the cavern was reduced to what you could see five or six feet in front of you.
I turned to Tlalo, whose face I struggled to make out after the fog reached us. He did not laugh, lest it give away our position, but he did grin as he unholstered his laser pistol and gestured for me to follow him down the lava tube.
It soon became apparent our cover would be short lived. The gentle whooshing I felt when we arrived, simply natural air currents traveling down the lava tube, would carry away the fog. With the atmospheric processor disabled, there would be no way to replenish it either.
As we advanced, I used my staff to reshape the rock into human shaped figures behind us. A simple ruse, but with the aid of the fog, it might buy us some time. Sure enough, a distant crackling soon echoed down the tunnel. The sound of those rock figures being demolished at the speed of thought.
Traversing the boulders soon wore me out. It didn’t help that our pursuers could simply float over them. When Tlalo frantically gestured to hide myself among the boulders, I quickly intuited why and was soon nestled in a narrow crevice like a frightened little mouse.
It felt the way I sometimes have in nightmares when I could hear some sort of monster approaching, but could not yet see it. That feeling of tightness in your chest, of impending doom bearing down on you.
My breath caught in my throat as the pair of Nordics floated silently overhead in tandem formation. I could just barely make out their silhouettes. I couldn’t see Tlalo at all down here, and dearly wished that I could right then. I think he assumed they would continue down the tunnel long enough that we could double back to the saucer.
Instead, they halted. Then both reversed course until they floated near enough that I could hear their nervous chatter, but not make them out. With the fog threatening to thin out at any moment, I wracked my brain for some way out of what should’ve been the end.
I focused on the staff. Then on the boulders, rapidly molding them into human figures. A dozen, then a hundred, surrounding the floating Nordics. They vaporized them, but I kept remaking them faster than they could keep up.
Finally they just floated there, still out of sight or I might’ve delivered the killing blow. Waiting to see what I was up to with the rock figures, I expect. Each statue held a rock staff, some resembling Tlalo while others resembled me.
I made one of them move. The atoms quickly re-arranged such that it took one step, then another. Creeping bit by bit around the periphery of the stone crowd. They vaporized it. So I made another one begin to move.
They vaporized three before realizing what I was up to. Must’ve been told there were only two of us beforehand. The third time, I rose to take my place with the rock figures, having instructed the staff to coat me with a layer of powdered rock.
As I hoped, in the fog I was impossible to distinguish from the statues. Despite my pounding heart, I focused, making one of the stone replicas nearest me run for it. At last, this provoked the Nordics to give chase. Believing perhaps that I’d given up on the charade, and was trying to escape?
Only, the minute they floated within view, I vaporized one of them. Before I could vaporize the other, my staff went cold and stopped responding to commands. Locked down by the staff of the remaining Nordic.
I tensed up, struggling not to breathe. He drew closer…raised his staff…then vaporized the statue immediately next to me. It was all the distraction Tlalo needed to pop up from cover and unload on him with his laser pistol.
He aimed for the Nordic’s arm, reducing it to smoldering ash in an instant, which separated him from his staff. It clattered to the ground, then disappeared down a crevice between two boulders. The Nordic cried out, even his agonized wails having some melodic resonance to them which I could not help but appreciate.
“That was some quick thinking” Tlalo remarked. “How did you subvert their staff’s thermal detection?” I explained that I’d warmed all of the rock statues up to body temperature. I’d also bothered to make their chests rise and fall at the same rate as my own, just in case it made any difference.
“Drena taught you all that?” he boggled. I shook my head, beaming as he lavished me with praise. The burnt, mangled body of the surviving Nordic lay sprawled across the rocks, his charred stump not gushing blood as I expected it to because the laser cauterized the wound.
When the fog thinned out enough that he could see me clearly, his icy blue eyes widened. “So it was true” he managed, despite his wounds. “They really found one.” Tlalo advanced on him. “Listen to me!” The Nordic urged. “I don’t know what they told you about us, but-”
With one more blast from the laser pistol, Tlalo finished him off. I looked away, weary of death by this point. “Find his staff, if you can” Tlalo barked at me. “Yours should still work. Typically they just neutralize the supply of Vril inside it.”
After clambering around on the rocks for a while, I caught a golden glint out of the corner of my eye. There, pinned in the cleavage between two boulders, was the Nordic’s Vril staff. It looked almost identical to mine, but sleeker.
It made me wonder how long ago mine was stolen. Tlalo instructed me on how to open the compartment with the vial of Vril inside. The one in the Nordic’s staff I recovered still emitted its warm, soothing golden glow.
By contrast, the one in my own staff was dark and cold. I popped it out and discarded it, then transplanted the still glowing vial from the recovered staff to my own. “Good, now hide it among the rocks. Odds are good it sent out a distress message when I shot its owner. Better for us if whoever they send to recover it wastes some time trying to find the damned thing, rather than hunting us.”
I lodged it somewhere I doubted if anybody would think to look, between the ceiling and an overhead shelf-like rock formation. I assumed they would expect it to be down among the boulders someplace.
I began to ask why we didn’t just destroy it, before properly grasping the meaning of what he’d said a moment ago. I was still exhausted from the trek, not to mention the fight. Nervously, I wished for the staff to rejuvenate me somewhat. To my surprise within a matter of seconds, I felt wholly re-energized.
Stay Tuned for Part 27!